The Big Apple, The Big Easy, Sin City, Windy City, The City of Brotherly Love, and then The Marvelous City, The City of Lights, The Square Mile, The Pearl of the Danube, The Eternal City... It seems like any given city of this planet has got a cool nickname. Every city, except Milan. It might be because the Northerners' city-nicknaming game has become weak during the centuries, but I think this is a gap that has to be filled. Here in Italy we still haven't got a “big something” city, like New York or New Orleans, but if we did, it should probably be Milan, and I'd suggest we name it “The Big Mask”.
This is a thought that has been nagging me ever since I came to Milan to work and live. It was September of 2010: almost four months after the city last put itself on the map of European Football, courtesy of the treble-winning Inter Milan (By the way: if you wish not to sound way too much of a foreigner, you want to call it just “Inter”).
As I made my way out of the Centrale station towards my new office, a very warm cloudless morning welcomed me. For a Southerner like me, this felt strange: even though I had spent the previous years in another Northern city, I had always thought of Milan as a grey, cold city, with a Conservative heart and a somehow creative, artistic belly. Oh boy, was I wrong.
I spent the following six years constantly changing my opinion about Milan. I realized that just one thing everybody says about Milan is 100% true: you either love it or hate it. And it never ceases to surprise you, pushing you to watch this city with new eyes on an almost daily basis.
Milan is a city of opposites, but what's fascinating is how these opposites kind of blur into one another, until they reach an insane balance, one that somehow makes both thrive. Obviously, this riddle is well reflected by the history and mentality of the two main football clubs of Milan, Associazione Calcio Milan and Football Club Internazionale Milano.
Just two weeks before the turn of the Twentieth Century, AC Milan was founded by an association of English and Italian boys, as reported by the Gazzetta dello Sport of those days. Nine years later, there was a rift regarding the signing of more foreign players: most of AC Milan members didn't want any more foreigners on their team even though, at the time, non-Italian footballers were the backbone of clubs all over Italy (as you can see, the status of foreigners was the talk of the cities even more than 100 years ago). Those who opposed to the shutdown, feeling it was an act of ingratitude, left the club and thus was born the Football Club Internazionale, which in its statute explained the name with these words: “It will be called Internazionale, for we are brothers of the world”.
Even the choice of colors plays into the game of opposites that is Milan. The black-and-blue pattern of Inter Milan was chosen starting from a pencil, the bi-color pencil once used in every school in Italy by teachers: red on one end of the pencil, blue on the other. Since blue was the opposite of red, I guess you can see the rationale behind the choice.
Through the decades, Inter and Milan carried on parallel lives, representing each one a different part of the city and following patterns that can be recognized even in the present, even though every single thing around those patterns has accomplished a 180-degree turn.
At this point, a big disclaimer is in order: since in Italy, it being the weird country that it is, sport is politics and politics is sport, the following paragraphs will be chock-full of politics.
Ever since their birth, Associazione Calcio Milan and Internazionale Milano have represented the two split and parallel hearts of the city: AC Milan were the team of the proletariat, the poor, working-class suburb inhabitants of the case di ringhiera, the characteristic public housing projects, to the point that its supporters were called the casciavìt (screwdrivers); it's not a coincidence that the team's playing ground, after much roaming through the outer belt of the city, was established in San Siro, on the western outskirts of Milan.
Inter Milan, on the other hand, were the team of the medium-high Milanese bourgeoisie who flocked to the Arena Civica (now part of Parco Sempione, the largest public park in Milan) to root for the Nerazzurri. From the haughty, snob demeanor of the traditional tifosi, every Inter fan got the nickname of baüscia (literally “the braggart ones”).
The political substrate of the fanbases reflected this split, and continued to do so until recent times: AC Milan fans were generally left-leaning, with some forays into radical left as the Brigate Rossonere name of the most important ultrà group testifies (a pun on the left-wing terrorist band, the Red Brigades); Inter fans were, conversely, mostly right-wingers of the most heterogeneous forms, ranging from the aristocratic Conservativism of the true baüscia fans to the para-Fascist undertones of the ultrà groups, notoriously entwined with SS Lazio fans.
Although the situation virtually remained similar, when we look at the tifo of the two teams, something happened, during the course of decades, that brought a radical change of sentiment. Something, or rather someone: Silvio Berlusconi.
Rumoured to be a closeted Inter fan, the tycoon bought an almost bankrupt AC Milan in the Eighties to bring it to the top of the world and to use it, together with his media empire, to leverage his rise to the center of the political stage: you've probably heard something about it already.
The interesting part of it is that Silvio Berlusconi's tenure as AC Milan chairman provided the 180-degree turn I was writing about before, concerning the political affiliation of the largest part of Milan and Inter tifo: the most left-leaning AC Milan fan clubs were disbanded, and the curva became very heterogeneous, following the “migration” of once-leftist working class towards the right wing of the political spectrum, while among the Nerazzurri tifo ranks came to prominence a “radical-chic” attitude which was a common trait of the political opposition to Berlusconi's vision.
Politics aside, AC Milan and Internazionale have a long history of one being the complete opposite of the other, in every aspect. One could be brought to think that the biannual Derby may entail unrest and violence in and around the now-shared Meazza Stadium at San Siro, but here's the surprising effect of Milan at its fullest: even though the rivalry is fierce, there have almost never been episodes of violence between the teams or between the tifosi.
AC Milan is there, and there is also Internazionale; they thrive, they fall, they compete, but they never really get a real contact; since their birth, the two teams have been walking through paths that are somehow both divergent and parallel, proceeding in different directions but reaching similar destinations. It has been so for more than a hundred years, and it seems to be so even now, in what some could call the most delicate moments of their stories, when both clubs are witnessing the takeover of foreign capitals and foreign chairmen.
As a matter of fact, while AC Milan has been at the centre of at least three different acquisition proposals in the last three years, none of which successful, Internazionale has seen itself pass by different hands twice in the last three years, with the sale to Erick Thohir in 2013 and the one to the Suning Holding Group last June. As both teams go through (re)growing pains, only time can tell how they will fare and how their destinies will interact with the nature of the city which hosts them.
A story as complex as the one of Milan and Inter, in fact, owes its intricacy to the context in which they exist. Milan is a city that conceals everything and reveals nothing. Nothing is like imagined from afar, but neither is the total opposite. It is a city of confusing synthesis, and that's where its charm lies.
Milan is called the “moral capital” of Italy, due to the almost-mitteleuropean entrepreneurial virtuosity that boosted its rapid growth during the “Italian miracle” era from the Fifties to the Seventies; and yet, most of the major scandals of the Republican era have unravelled in front of the Madonnina, through a network of rotten clientelism, obscure Catholic-laced conspiracies and general decadence. From Tangentopoli to the bunga-bunga scandal, to the ever-increasing Mafia influence in the city, Milan has had a lot of filth to hide beneath its carpets.
It is said that Milan is the capital of Northern Italy, seen as a model of efficiency and perfection by those who advocate the “northern supremacy”: and yet, it is actually the largest Southern city in Italy , thanks to the enormous Sicilian, Calabrese, Apulian, Campanian communities, which have in time come to keep the city alive, to the point that it is quite hard to find a “pure-blood” Milanese nowadays. The Espositos have long surpassed the Brambillas.
According to the Italian popular imagination, life in Milan is an endless stream of sushi lunch to haute cuisine dinner, and it is quite true that this was the starting point of the ethnic restaurant invasion, back in the “cocktail-crowd Milan” of the Eighties; and yet, the city is full of cute, increasingly expensive trattorias and osterias where to eat the world-famous risotto with saffron and the “elephant-ear” cutlet, by far some of the best meals to have in the city.
When I first came to Milan, I looked up at it as the beacon of modernity in a quite backward Italy, a hub of creativity and entrepreneurship; what I met was actually a delusional city where nothing is like expected, where huge businesses are run like a child's toy, where some of the elites, those who have not retreated to their salons that is, live like they're still in 1987 and the rest are too busy or pissed off to even care.
I also expected a cold and grey habitat, where everything was impersonal and apathetic: to tell the truth, I found some of that, but there is also something in the city parks, inside the churches, along the Navigli when nobody's partying: there is space for the eyes and mind to wander, rest, even be moved.
The truth, provided Milan guarantees one, is that the city, like its football teams, is split between the dreams and the memories of the time they mattered and the harsh reality of not being the center of a restricted world anymore.
New York, as the moral capital of the world, is the Big Apple, the city where everybody can get their reward. Rome, as the capital of Italy, is the Eternal City whose beauty silences its problems. Milan is like a human being, a city of radical opposites, blurring each other out to find some balance. Milan is a severely crippled city. And yet it cannot really leave you apathetic. Milan is polarizing: there are people who loathe the city and grab the chance to escape its influx, but there are people who remain, fascinated by the faults and endeared by the beauty. It is the Big Mask, a post-modern city which hides its face behind a mask and wears its flaws on the sleeve.